The Sad, Sad Tale of the Shickluna Gas Station

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With the New Year of 2016 on our doorstep, and a newly-elected federal government promising change, it seems timely to put the spotlight one of Canada’s most unusual National Historic Sites. It’s the former Shickluna service (gas) station in the town of Port Colborne in Ontario’s Niagara Region.

What’s the connection, you well might ask, between a small-town gas station and our newly-elected federal government? The answer comes in one word–“history.”

Shickluna has the distinction of being the only service/gas  station in Canada to be named a National Historic Site.

And while this designation alone is cause for praise, the future for the L.J. Shickluna Site is a clouded one. It joins at least two other National Historic Sites in Ontario–the former Bowmanville Boys’ School and the once gracious Bellevue House in Amherstburg on the historically-endangered list.

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 Let’s travel back in time first to the island of Malta. One of the smallest nations in the world at only 122 square kilometers, Malta lies in the Mediterranean Sea, 80 km south of Italy.

It’s in this nation of mariners, that the Maltese Shickluna family had made their fortune in the ship-building industry.   

The Canadian connection to the Shickluna clan finds its beginning in 1808. In that year, one Louis Joseph Shickluna was born into the powerful family. Following tradition, it was hoped that one day, Louis would take over the family business.

But this young man had other plans.  At age 23, Louis boarded a sailing ship for the British colony of Canada. Adventure was tops on Louis’  list of priorities.  

Disembarking at Quebec City, Louis first found work at a shipbuilding company.  By the next year, he’d moved on to Youngstown, New York.

But not for long. By the mid-1800’s Great Lakes shipping was booming, thanks in a large part to the opening of the Welland Canal in 1833. Seeing his long-term future here, Louis returns to Canada.

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He chooses the Niagara area, along the shores of Lake Erie  to make his mark and founds his own shipping company.  Over the next half-century the Shickluna shipyards work at full-throttle, producing some the most advanced Great Lakes sailing ships of the day—some 140 in total.

In the process the Shickluna name became synonymous with wealth, power and innovation in the Canadian shipping industry.

On Louis’ death in 1899, his son Joseph stepped into his father’s large shoes. But the great age of shipping was inevitably  drawing to a close. If the Shickluna dynasty was to maintain its financial and social standing, they would need to diversify.

That future seemed to point to the automobile.

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With car ownership growing exponentially across Canada and the U.S., in the early years of the 20th century, gas and service stations were springing up across the nation.  In 1924, third generation Canadian Louis Shickluna joined the entrepreneurial crowd and planned to open his own business.

He’d chosen Port Colborne just east of the town of Fort Erie to start his business.  But this would be no ordinary “get your gas and grease job here” type of commercial establishment. Young Louis Shickluna had plans for something special.   

Working with the Imperial Oil Company, Louis brought built a fair measure of architectural flair to his proposed business establishment. It would be designed in the California Mission Revival architectural style—one that drew its inspiration from the Spanish missions in California.

Gabled pediments, massive supporting pillars, broad overhanging eaves and red Spanish tile roof define the decidedly southwest American style.

(One of the best-known examples of California Mission architecture is featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo which is set north of San Francisco. )

California Mission  architecture was a rarity north of the 49th parallel.  No doubt  Louis Shickluna’s gas station must have caused more than one driver to do a double-take.

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Early September 2015 sees your intrepid National Historic Site explorers heading southwest from Waterloo Region to the Niagara Region along the Lake Erie shore.

The area is home to a number of Sites, including the previously profiled Point Abino Lighthouse and several Sites connected to the War of 1812-14. But we’re most eager to see NHS Shickluna, surely one of the most curious Sites in our travels across Ontario.

Historical research has little-prepared us for the sad reality of Canada’s only  gas station National Historic Site.  Standing on a weed-choked property, with derelict rubble propped against the building,  Shickluna is  boarded and closed. Its white stucco paint has peeled and the exterior is vandalized with graffiti.

 “It doesn’t even have a plaque indicating what it is,” I comment to Louis. We leave with no fond memories of Canada’s gas station tribute to the California Mission architectural style.

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A chat with local residents following our Shickluna visit gives us was no solace. It does reveals Port Colborne’s mood about the town’s only National Historic Site.

“It’s an eyesore,” says one resident. “And right on the main street. It makes the town look bad.”

Another puts blame on the National Monuments and Sites Board for allowing a “national treasure” to deteriorate so shamefully.

Still another shares the Shickluna buzz around town.  

“A developer bought it a few years ago and is just waiting till there are enough complaints that the town will order it torn down as a hazard and eyesore.”

He continues the Port Colborne scuttlebutt. “The word is that demolition is what the developer wants in the first place– National Historic Site or no National Historic Site.

“You mark my words,” our “mole” predicts. “You’lI see high- priced condos on the property in 5 years. “

Under 10 years of Conservative government, Parks Canada which oversees National Historic Sites, has been stripped to the bare bones, both financially and with respect to resources.  History lovers hope that a Prime Minister with a history university degree will be kinder.

If you feel that preserving Canada’s heritage is a priority for the new Liberal government, let your MP know. I have.

The former Shickluna Service Station in Port Colborne was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995.  

Look to the Sky and feel the Wonder: Gillies Grove, Arnprior

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“It’s a reverential place,” I whisper to my companion. “You seem to leave the outside world behind when you step onto the path.”

He agrees. “It reminds me of when the Pevensie children stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia.”

Indeed Gillies Grove National Historic Site in Arnprior is a magical and otherworldly place. It is surely one of only a handful of Ontario’s National Historic Sites where man plays little part.

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Dense forests, Canada’s First Nation people and abundant wildlife greeted French explorer Samuel de Champlain when he ventured into central Canada in 1613.

The French explorer had crossed the sea to the New World, then turned his sights on the daunting St. Lawrence River. This massive waterway would lead him into the heart of Canada. Halting at the turbulent rapids at Lachine, the adventurers traded ship for canoe and set off into the unknown.

Algonquin guides led Champlain and a number of his crew westward along the Ottawa River—a landmine of rocks, rapids and shoals.

For the French explorers, the view must surely have been awe-inspiring. Dense virgin forest grew on either side of the fast-flowing Ottawa River. Sugar maples, yellow birch, American beech, eastern hemlock and basswood trees stretched as far as the eye could see.

All were dwarfed by magnificent stands of the Eastern White Pine. One of the tallest species of tree in Canada, a mature White Pine can tower over 50 meters.  

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Fast forward now  to 1823. Scottish-born land developer Archibald McNab has petitioned the Canadian government to grant him land along the Ottawa River west of Ottawa. McNab’s aim was to become wealthy by selling plots to the influx of Scots, English and Irish who were flocking to Canada at the time.

As McNab’s plan went forward, expanses of forest land was cleared for farming. The trees provided raw materials for barns and houses. And soon the forests became a memory.  

The Eastern White Pine had a different fate than homesteaders cabins. It was especially prized in both France and England. With trunks that grew long, straight and strong the trees provided perfect raw materials for the masts of sailing ships.

And so, the Eastern White Pine gradually disappeared from the eastern and southern Ontario landscape.

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The decimation was halted by lumber magnate Daniel McLachlin, who had acquired an expanse of land outside the town of Arnprior. While most of McLachlin’s purchase was razed for lumber, he preserved  22-hectares for family picnics.

When McLachlin went bankrupt, the 22 acre site was purchased by another lumber king—David Gillies. Gillies prized the land and stated his wish to preserve the forest reserve after his passing.

With Gillies death in 1967 and his wife’s in 1980, Gillies Grove was willed to the United Church of Canada. Church administration turned the bequest down and the property went on the market.

In 1986, it was purchased by the Ottawa-based Roman Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate for $100,000.

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By the early 2000’s Gillies Grove was on the market again, with the Oblates declaring the property too expensive to maintain. Arnprior buzzed with rumours that their beloved Grove was about to be sold to a developer who would raze the property for building lots.

It’s reported that the howls of protest coming out of Arnprior could be heard as far as neighbouring Pembroke!  

It was conservationists to the rescue. Gillies Grove was purchased by The Nature Conservancy of Canada in 2001. The organization continues to administer the property with volunteers from the Land Preservation Society of the Ottawa Valley.

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Let’s take a leisurely stroll ourselves through the Grove. It’s a mere hop-step-and jump from the fast-running Ottawa River.  

As is customary, we’re accompanied on our National Historic Site adventure with our Golden Retriever, Hailey. Given the time of year (late fall) and the weather (cool and rainy) we are the only visitors to Gillies Grove. We allow her the privilege of exploring off-leash.

Seemingly awed like us by the experience, she stays close. Her nose confirms that there are other species than trees and plants in the Grove.

A number of birds—many now rare in populated southern Ontario lure dedicated bird-watchers to the Gillies Grove site. They include the uncommon scarlet tanager, red-shouldered hawks, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls.

If you stay long enough and show patience, visitors may be treated to the acrobatics of flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree. Look down too and if you’re sharp-eyed, you may spy red-backed salamanders scurrying along the forest floor.  

A dazzling array of plant species changes according to the season. Spring flowers include hepaticas, violets, red and white trilliums. Summer brings white baneberry and the Indian pip plant.

But today, we’ve come primarily to see the Eastern White Pine. And  we are rewarded. The pines stand shoulder-to-shoulder near the centre of the grove. So high are they that from the ground it is difficult to see their top-most branches.

In May of 2015, the Nature Conservancy announced that the tallest tree in Ontario finds its home in Gillies Grove. Measuring 47 meters (147 feet) high and more than 100 cm. in breadth, this magnificent giant stands taller than a 13-story building.

Estimated to be between 150-200 years old, the pine has been added to Forest Ontario’s Honour Roll as the province’s tallest tree.  A bench has been placed beside the gentle giant to invite tree-huggers to rest a spell and look up—look way, way up!

Gillies Grove was honoured as a National Historic Site in 1994.

The Point Abino Lighthouse: No Riff-Raff Allowed Here!

Point Abino etc 013Point Abino etc 015Point Abino etc 009Point Abino etc 007Point Abino etc 001Our tour guide’s warning: “When you’re on the bus don’t take any pictures of the houses out the windows” was a first for your intrepid National Historic Site explorers.
But then, there’s nothing usual about a trip to the Point Abino Lighthouse National Historic Site.

Perched on a narrow spit of land on the north shore of Lake Erie, a few kilometers west of the town of Fort Erie, this structure has been called by lighthouse watchers “the most beautiful and the most unusual in all of Canada.”

Having visited a number of historic lighthouses over our continuing adventure to visit all National Historic Sites in Ontario, the stylish Point Abino gets my vote too.

So climb on the Point Abino Lightstation Preservation Society’s (PALPS) tour bus, store your cameras for the short trip, and enjoy the stories told by Al Holland, PALPS President and Chief Tour guide.
Each spring, Al and his wife Prue, both American citizens living in Buffalo 6 months a year, pack up the sunscreen and sunhats and head for Point Abino, Ontario. Al’s been a part-time resident there since his childhood. He’s a storehouse of facts and behind-the-scenes on all things Point Abino.
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Great Lakes watchers estimate that there have been over 700 shipwrecks throughout the centuries on the combined lakes. Lake Erie tops the list of loss of ships and lives.

During one vicious tempest on November 11 1913, 12 ships and 235 men lost their lives. After this, the shipping industry howled for a permanent lighthouse on the north-east shore of the quixotic lake to warn errant ships of the treacherous shoals off shore.

A spit of land at Point Abino,  near the town of Fort Erie was targeted for the construction. Great Lakes watchers breathed a sigh of relief.

Not so fast!There was a sticky wicket to navigate first.

Since 1862, wealthy Americans and Canadians had vacated the cities for their summer homes in the community of Point Abino. “Old money” resided safe and secure behind stone walls and a secured gate.

And now a lighthouse was being proposed at the lake edge? Never! Feelings ran high and resistance was strong within the privacy-seeking Point Abino community.

It would be 1915 before ruffled feathers were smoothed. In that year work on the lighthouse and an adjoining lighthouse keeper’s house began. Even then feelings still ran high with some residents.

Al Holland relates an anecdote that illustrates just how strong anti-lighthouse was.  

“They demanded that all the building supplies had to be transported to the site by barge. No way were they going to let construction and delivery trucks to rumble through their neighbourhood!
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Architect William Anderson was hired to design a structure that would complement the air of refinement of the Point Abino community. On rock, jutting approximately 100 meters into Lake Erie, the Anderson’s lighthouse rose.

The 5-story high, reinforced-concrete lighthouse rested on a raised concrete platform. That’s where the utilitarian details ended. 

Built in a Classical Revival architectural style, the Point Abino Lighthouse brings to mind a graceful Greek or Roman temple. Arched windows, pediments, a tower balustrade and oculus (circular) windows lend an air of refinement and elegance, scarce seen before in a utilitarian structure.

Indeed, Anderson’s concept was a decided departure from the usual cylindrical or octagonal lighthouses of the day. To this day, Anderson’s design is judged unique in Canada—some say the world.
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A word about Frenchman physicist Augustin Fresnel, the inventor of the Fresnel lens which powered the light beam into the treacherous lake waters.

Lore tells that Fresnel had discovered a way to magnify light rays into one single (and powerful) beam. That his discovery came as he was “playing” with a drop of honey, makes him a role model for creativity!

Before the Fresnel lens, the most powerful beam of light created was no more than 20,000 units of candle power. Fresnel’s invention upped that power to 80,000 candlepower. With the serendipity of electrical power, the candlepower capacity was raised into the millions.

By 1915, Fresnel’s conception of transmitting light had become the standard for lighthouses around the world. Mounted in its tower, Point Abino’s Fresnel Lens measured 5 feet across by 6 feet high.

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The classic dazzle of the exterior Point Abino is not complemented by the inside. Tour Guide Al Holland notes that while the exterior has been lovingly restored the interior has not benefited yet. Money of course is at the root of conservation issues. Of interest are  two enormous air tanks. Blasts of air blown from the tanks created the distinctive foghorn warning.

Curiously, Point Abino was constructed 2 feet below flood level. During severe summer storms, the lighthouse is cut off from the “mainland,” and is surrounded by 2 feet of Lake Erie water.
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After a fierce summer storm in 1985 the days became numbered for the Point Abino Lighthouse. It had been severelydamaged by winds and water and needed extensive repairs. Canada’s Federal government (Parks Canada) was on the hook for repairs. It didn’t take long for them to lower the boom.

Lighthouse staff were decommissioned in 1989, with operations ceasing entirely in 1995. The lighthouse was closed and was up for sale. Parks Canada was asking $400,000.
To no one’s surprise, there were no takers!

History lovers and lighthouse fans alike were worried about the future of Point Abino. Al Holland recalls the reaction of at least one member of the community when the lighthouse was put up for sale.

“He was a former sea captain himself so he had a soft spot for maritime history. But he was so upset by the idea of the public invading his privacy that he lobbied for the lighthouse to be torn down. Then the problem would be solved.”
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To the relief of Point Abino supporters on both sides of the border, the Lighthouse was eventually purchased in 2003 by the Town of Fort Erie. It changed hands for a mere $5000.

After the purchase, the top item on Fort Erie’s “must do” list was to negotiate with the Point Abino residents and their Community Association. The public’s access to the Point Abino National Historic Site depended on the community allowing access through their property, via THEIR road.

In the end, money solved the problem. Since 2003, the town has annually paid $4000 and some change to the Point Abino Residential Association. This gives PALPS the right to run a bus to the lighthouse on selected summer weekends.

Even then numbers of bus riders is restricted to 25. A gated road prevents pedestrians from entering the exclusive enclave.

If you go: Tours to the Point Abina Lighthouse have ended for the season. They will resume in summer 2016. Go to http://www.palps.ca for more information.

LOOK UP; LOOK WAAAAY UP: THE POINT CLARK LIGHTHOUSE

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 Look Up. Look Waaaaay Up. The Point Clark Lighthouse

“So if anyone of you feel like you won’t be able to get up to the top or get back down, tell me now,” instructs Emily, our tour guide at the National Historic Site Point Clark Lighthouse.

She forges on: “A couple of weeks ago one of our guests took a fright and wouldn’t (or couldn’t) climb down. We ended up having to call the fire department and they needed to carry her down.” 

No one in our little band of 11 lighthouse visitors—5 adults and 6 children—one as young as 4– bailed. And so we began the trek up to the top of the Point Clark Lighthouse. The view, Emily promised, would be worth the hair-raising journey.  

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Before the Point Clark lighthouse rose along the Lake Huron shore, 12 miles south of Kincardine, sailors hung a lantern high in a pine tree to warn sailors of the danger. Shoals (shallow rocks) lurked 2 miles off the shore and more than one ship had met its doom there.

But given the prevalence of gusty winds along this stretch of the Lake Huron shoreline, the lantern would blow down regularly. It left unsuspecting sailors at the mercy of the Point Clark shoals.

By the mid-1850’s, with Great Lakes shipping in its heyday, the Canadian Imperial government took measures to improve the perilous situation. In 1855, 12 years before Canadian Confederation, contractor John Brown of Thorold was hired to build an “Imperial Tower” (lighthouse) at Point Clark. It was one of 6 Imperial Towers that would rise along the Lake Huron and Georgian Bay shores. 

The Point Clark lighthouse was built to last. It would endure heavy lake winds and considerable moisture. Recurrent freezing and melting over the winter months would do the lighthouse no favours either.

Massive blocks of limestone or dolomite, the best quality available at the time, were brought by scow from Inverhuron, 20 miles to the north. Stone masons now got to work chiseling and setting over 1400 massive rocks into place.  Five feet thick at the bottom, and rising 87 feet, the wall tapered to 2 feet in width at the top.

To support the heavy light tower, more durable granite replaced limestone for the top few feet.  And so, like a candle topping a birthday cake, the lantern room became the Point Clark lighthouse’s piece de resistance. Windows afford a 360 degree view of the landscape. And what a spectacular view the lantern room afforded!

In 1858, 6 French technicians arrived in Point Clark. Their job was to build and install the 12-sided cast iron Fresnel light which would emit a warning signal. It took the French experts a full year to complete the job.

On April 1, 1859, 4 years after construction began, the Point Clark lighthouse was lit. But no April Fool’s joke here! On a clear day, the revolving light which flashed every 30 seconds could be seen 15 miles away, lakeside.

Keeping the Fresnel light fired 24 hours each day was no easy exercise. Until 1953, the light was powered by coal oil, stored in drums in a crawl space under the ground floor. Each day, the lighthouse keeper ascended the 9 flights of stairs to haul the day’s supply of coal oil up to the top. 97-pound weaklings need not apply for this job!   

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Emily opens the heavy wooden door of the lighthouse and our stalwart group crowds inside. The air is heavy with age and damp. “I don’t wanna be here, Dad,” one pre-schooler pipes up. “Let’s go back outside.” “You’ll be fine Scott,” says Dad. “I’ll be right here beside you.”

Young Scott’s trepidation mirrors my own. “This is not going to be easy,” I mutter under my breath. Cataracts and myopic degeneration have dimmed my vision considerably and have made my depth perception unreliable. I’ve misjudged flights of stairs on more than one occasion, and been sent careening to the floor.

And these are no ordinary steps. Narrow and steep, 114 steps are broken up by a series of 9 landings. They lead to the ultimate goal, the lantern room perched on the top of the structure.

With Emily leading the way we begin to climb 9 stories. The light is dim making my vision issues more pronounced. By the 3rd story, I’ve moved to the back of the pack, allowing the speedier climbers to move ahead. I’m awed by a grandfather in front of me, shepherding his 2 young grandchildren along. “They’re real troupers,” I comment and he agrees.

By the time we reach landing 7, Emily advises us that the supporting railing on both sides of the stairs now ends. “So it’s now like climbing a ladder to get to the top,” she chirps.

 “Lawdy, Lawdy, what fresh hell have I stepped into?” I mutter under my breath as I inch my way upwards towards the heavens.

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A lighthouse keeper remained on site until the mid-1960’s. By this time coal oil feeding the Fresnel light had been replaced by electricity. A battery pack served as backup when power failed. In 1966, the Point Clark lighthouse was designated a National Historic Site, the first Ontario lighthouse to be so honoured.

But by 2000, the lighthouse was falling apart. The protective wash of limestone had done yeoman service, but after 140 years, the mortar and many of the stones had cracked. In 2011 it was deemed unsafe for the public and was closed. Experts estimated it would take a year to repair the crumbling stones at a cost to taxpayers about $500,000.

Year 1 of the Point Clark restoration blended to 2, then 3 then 4.  Black plastic covered it from top to bottom as workmen replaced and secured the faulty stones. 473 of the original 1400 stones were replaced. And while technology looked after transporting and lifting the  massive rocks, all were hand-chiseled before being set in place.

By the time National Historic Site Point Clark Lighthouse re-opened in June 2105, the cost had ballooned to $1.7 million.

National Historic Site supporters and fans of phanology (lighthouse lore) were delighted when tours of the lighthouse recommenced in the summer of 2015.

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We’ve reached the lantern room and the view is breathtaking. “On a really clear day, you can see the Goderich salt mines 20 miles to the south,” says our guide. But the spell is soon broken.

“The trip down the stairs is probably going to be scarier than going up,” warns Emily. “You’ll want to go down backwards, like you would a ladder–especially on the 2 flights that don’t have railings.”

Your ever-curious National Historic Site “reporter” queries: “So has anyone ever fallen going up or down?” “Not while I’ve been here—but then I’ve only been here for 2 months,” Emily answers. “We do our best to ensure the safety of visitors,” she adds.

Other than one missed step, this sight-impaired explorer arrives on ground floor safely. Louis and our four-footed Hailey are there to greet me. It has been an adventure which, despite my challenges, I’m pleased to have accomplished.

Such a feat demands a reward.  St. Jacobs “Apple Pie” flavoured ice cream at the local corner store did nicely, thank you.

The Point Clark lighthouse is opened daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm until Labour Day. It’s well worth the $5 price of a guided tour.

REFORM, RIOT AND RUIN The Sorry Tale of the Bowmanville Training School for Boys /POW Camp 30

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It’s been great fun! 123 National Historic sights visited, researched and photographed. 43 blogs posted. Articles in Canada’s History, Country Connection, Grand Magazine published. Newspaper coverage too in the Kitchener Record and the Guelph Mercury.

From the stunning wall murals of little St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Brantford, to the eerie elegance of the Massey family crypt at Mount Pleasant Cemetery; from the medieval hulk of the Huron County Jail where the boy Steven Truscott was held, to the archological treasures of Sheguiandah on Manitoulin Island, we’ve uncovered Ontario’s history with feelings of awe and wonder; gratitude, admiration and pride.

One only failed the test.

So tag along with me to the little town of Bowmanville, east of Oshawa. It’s the site of the former Bowmanville Training School for Boys. Walk with me round the sprawling site which also served as a Prisoner of War camp for high-ranking Nazi officers during the Second World War.

Chances are  you’ll feel bereft too.

“The Most Progressive Facility of its Kind in Canada”

Constructed on farm land outside the town, the Bowmanville Boys School took shape in 1925. It was, at its inception, considered the most progressive training school in Canada. Boys aged 8-14 were sent to Bowmanville to be “reformed.”

Architect F.R. Heakes, an admirer of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was charged with the task of designing the 6 buildings that would make up the School. Wright had previously introduced America to the “Prairie”’ style of architectural design.

The movement sought to blend new buildings in with the natural world. A “Prairie” designed structure emphasized low horizontal lines, with gently-pitched or flat roof lines. Building materials were stucco and brick, in soft earth tones. All elements combined to mimic the flatness and openness of the American Prairie.

Popular in the U.S., especially in the American west, the Prairie style did not catch on in Canada, and then primarily in house designs. Few non-residential buildings bear the mellow “Prairie” seal.

“It was an ironic architectural choice for a locked-down training school,” I suggest to my travelling companion. “Wide open spaces and all that.”

Over the next 16 years, hundreds of wayward Ontario youth did “time” at the Bowmanville Training School for Boys. Figures don’t reveal how many left ready to re-join society as model citizens.

Operation Kiebitz and other Escapades

In 1941, The Bowmanville Training School moved into the second phase of its history. Now called Camp 30, the buildings would welcome more formidable “guests” than youthful pickpockets and vandals.

Over the course of World War II, approximately 800 high-ranking Nazi officers who’d been captured by Allied forces would now call Bowmanville’s Camp 30 home. For security sake, the Allies wanted to relocate these devils as far away from Europe as possible. The wilds of “the colony” would do just fine for this purpose.

The prize “guest” was U-Boat commander Otto Kretschmer. Between September 1939 and March 1941, Kretschmer sunk 47 Allied ships including convoy vessels which were bringing food and supplies to England.

War lore reports that on learning of the capture of his #1 U-Boat ace and his incarceration in Canada, Hitler ordered his SS masterminds to engineer Kretschmer’s escape. It is known to history as Operation Kiebitz.

With Nazi operatives passing information to prisoners in Camp 30, the German officers built an underground tunnel–15 feet deep and extending horizontally 300 feet beyond the barbed-wire. Inch by inch, the escape hatch was excavated.

Cups and spoons, pilfered from Camp 30’s mess hall were the tools of choice.  An ingeniously-devised trolley carried the dirt up to the building’s attic. Not only was the tunnel wired for lighting but a ventilation system was installed.

Ah! German technology!

But with the tunnel almost ready to receive its first celebrity escapee, it collapsed. Kretschner’s Canadian visit was extended to the end of the war!

Operation Kiebitz was only one of many escape attempts undertaken at Camp 30.With typical German efficiency an “escape committee” approved all projects.

A visit to Camp 30 is not complete without mention of “The Battle of Bowmanville.”In late 1942, Hitler gave notice to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Allied Commandos would be immediately executed upon capture in Germany or other Nazi held-countries. Churchill retaliated by issuing orders that POW camps in Europe and Canada would now shackle their highest-ranking German officers.

Camp 30 followed orders and a prisoner riot ensured. Guards from other detention centres were called for reinforcement. They found Kretschmer and friends barricaded in the cafeteria armed with baseball mats and sticks.

The Training School’s Sad Demise

After the end of the war in 1945, Camp 30 returned to its original purpose and the school reopened. It remained in operation until 1979, then closed. More enlightened approaches to youth punishment had replaced incarceration.

Over the coming years, the site served a number of purposes: as a private, later a Catholic school and then an Islamic university. In 2008 the site was abandoned and has remained vacant for the succeeding 7 years.

With the purchase of the property in 2012 by a developer who planned to demolish the buildings for a housing project, local history buffs howled. A movement was quickly formed to save this chapter in Bowmanville’s history.

In an effort to be conciliatory, the developer donated to the town the section of the expansive property where the buildings were located. Efforts now turned to having the 6 remaining buildings designated as a National Historic Site.

In a 2012 newspaper interview, Bowmanville’s Board of Trade President went on record hoping that the designation would bring with it federal funding.

And sprinter Ben Johnson will get back his gold Olympic medal!

Almost 10 years later, National Historic Site Bowmanville Training School for Boys and POW Camp 30  remains in architectural hell,  vacant, defaced and crumbling.

VOTE HISTORY  and HERITAGE

With the Silcox National Historic Site tour moving into eastern Ontario, we’ve planned a stop in Bowmanville. I’ve done my homework and know that the former Boys Training School has fallen on hard times.

Still, nothing prepared these amateur history sleuths for what was revealed to us on Lamb’s Road just north of the town.

We see a property choked with weeds, garbage and broken bottles littering the onetime tended grounds. Graffiti mars the sides of every building. The blackened results of 2 arson attempts remain visible.

Those windows not smashed have been boarded up. Doors have been ripped from their frames, allowing entry and who knows what damage to the buildings. I hadn’t the heart to walk inside.

One lone “No Trespassing” sign mocks the reality of what lies before us.

Today, the Architecture Conservancy Board of Ontario, of Clarington Township continues to explore ways and means to rescue the Site from more destruction. Estimates run as high as $15,000,000.

Only a miracle can save this National Historic Site. Does the Canadian Federal election of 2015 hold the key?

 

Mayor Thomas Foster: Meet Detective William Murdoch

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Earlier this year, fans of Murdoch Mysteries were treated to some Ontario History at its most beautiful—and bizarre.

The plot of the Season 8 episode, Murdoch and the Temple of Death saw our hunky Detective investigating a murder at a haunted temple north of Toronto. Rumour held that the building harboured a priceless treasure,  guarded by a troll.  

“Sir, they say that the Temple is cursed,” reports the impressionable but capable Constable George Crabtree, Detective William Murdoch’s right-hand man. “People say that anyone who goes inside the Temple of Death never comes out alive.”

And so Murdoch and Crabtree, with Coroner Emily Grace and several stalwarts of Toronto’s Police Station #4, travel north to Markham to investigate the dastardly goings-on.  

Before the hour is done, temple floors open to reveal secret tunnels beneath; codes are interpreted that give clues to the hidden treasure; and dungeon walls sprout deadly blades. And the hidden treasure is discovered.

But is it the Holy Grail—or a clever facsimile?

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After “Murdoch and the Temple of Death” was aired, social media buzzed, wondering where the episode had been filmed. A few of those queries came my away. It appears that in my part-time role as a National Historic Site adventurer, I’m a good resource for such information.

“Where was it filmed, Nancy?”

 “Is it a National Historical Site?”

 “Have you been there?”

So come along with me on a fascinating tour of the real Foster Memorial outside Uxbridge, north of Toronto. Along the way, you’ll meet the eccentric builder, former Member of Parliament and Toronto Mayor Thomas Foster.

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After a visit to the Taj Mahal in India in the late 1920’s, Toronto millionaire Thomas Foster was inspired to finally open his wallet. He planned to build a final resting place for himself, his wife and daughter.

Having made his fortune in real estate, Foster would spare no expense in creating his legacy. At the time, 1935, Foster’s free-spending ways shocked those who knew him as a dedicated skinflint. 

Born in Uxbridge, Foster began his working career as a butcher’s apprentice. Over the years, through wise real estate purchases, he became a millionaire. Foster became powerful politically too. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1917, serving a Toronto riding until 1921. In 1925, he was elected Mayor of Toronto.

Even after Foster had made his millions, his reputation as a Simon Legree was widespread. He was said to have instructed his cook to only buy small eggs instead of large or medium ones to save food costs.

A landlord with many rental properties, Foster did all maintenance and repairs himself, to save workmen’s costs.  

Foster’s penny-pinching ways eventually ended his political career. He lost his re-election as Toronto Mayor in 1927. The voters had clearly spoken on the Mayor’ refusal to increase his police force’s wages.

 

What Foster was willing to spend on was a contest he ran to find the Toronto woman who could produce the most children in a 10-year period. The prize? $125,000

Ah true life is surely stranger than fiction!!

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So Foster-watchers were agog with his grandiose plans to build a  great Memorial. Initial estimates ran to $100,000, a veritable pirate’s treasure in Depression times. When all was complete, the figure came in at over $200,000.  

Inspired by the Taj Mahal, Foster’s Memorial was complete by  1936. Its wide-open location in the rolling hills north of Uxbridge (Foster’s birthplace) had been chosen to allow maximum visibility for all who looked and admired.

The exterior walls of the Foster Memorial’s boasted the finest Ontario limestone. A copper roof of burnished emerald green added fine contrast to the magisterial grey stone. 

Inside, its soaring domed roof rested on 4 supporting pillars.  With an octagonal base, the structure measured 87 feet by 92 feet.  16 decorative marble pillars rose from floor to ceiling. All were inlaid with 24 carat gold.

Only the finest Italian marble would do for the Thomas Foster’s final resting place. The marble was inlaid with delicate mosaic tiles, arranged artistically to represent various religious symbols or images. They included the River of Death, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, (beginning and end) and the laurel wreath of victory.

A large removable marble slab allowed access to the crypt below where bodies were interred. Doors wrought of solid copper, and hand-painted stained glass added elegance to the interior.

On the Foster Memorial’s completion, rubber-neckers drove from miles around to witness what real wealth looked like.   

Thomas Foster waited 10 years to be welcomed “home.” He passed away in 1945, at the age of 93.  In his will, Foster had bequeathed $80,000– a tidy sum in 1945– to maintain his legacy.

Little could he have imagined how inadequate that would be in the years to come.

When the town of Uxbridge took over responsibility of the Foster Memorial in the early 1990’s, it had fallen into ruin and disrepair. The building badly needed a needed new roof. To retain the copper, this improvement alone was estimated at over $1,000,000. What to do? What to do?

And so when production companies such as Murdoch Mysteries show an interest in renting the site, Uxbridge is glad to comply.  During the summer of 2014, the cast and crew moved into the area for several days to shoot the episode.

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Some alterations by the company’s Art Department needed to be made first. With the liberal use of props and computer-generated images (CGI) Thomas Foster’s legacy became the haunted, man-killing, treasure-hiding Temple of Death.

On the exterior, a combination of faux foliage and computer-animation images of trees and bush transformed the usually manicured grounds of the Memorial into an overgrown, shaggy tangle, hiding it from the outside world.

Most of the action takes place indoors—and looking down. One scene has Murdoch’s companion, Dr. Iris Bajjali, an Egyptian archeologist, pushing on areas of the marble floor to find the entrance to the crypt. Thanks to CGI she finds the “sweet spot’ and the floor opens.  

The two sleuths now descend into the tunnel below to search for the treasure. Unknown to them, a death trap of deadly knives and daggers await.

“All fake” admits Paul Aitken writer of the episode. “We built the dungeon in the Murdoch studio.”

Within a week, all signs of the Murdoch Mysteries cast and crew had departed the Foster Memorial. The building now resumed its life as a white elephant and testament to a politician’s excess.

Uxbridge-ians remain divided on the fate of Thomas Foster’ grand statement. Some advise bulldozing the site. History lovers are aghast

Open to the public over the summer months, the Memorial can also be rented for weddings and other  social events.

Note: The Foster Memorial is NOT presently formally designated a National Historic Site. 

So Small; So Lovely; So Many Tales to Tell. Nathaniel Dett’s Church in Niagara Falls

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After weeks of life getting in the way of adventuring, Louis, the two dogs and I set off on an unseasonably-warm, late December day to Niagara Falls. There we’d open the Niagara chapter of our quest to visit all the National Historic Sites in Ontario.

The Niagara Region—Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston and St Catharines rank second only to Toronto in the number of Sites that are of national significance.

Thank the War of 1812-1814 for that. Niagara’s close proximity to the U.S. in those bellicose days made it a predominant setting for battles during the War. Battles don’t catch my attention much. My chauffeur thinks otherwise. But unless he get his fingers flying over the keyboard, you’ll not likely get much musket talk from this writer. 

By the time we turned toward home, we’d visited 7 Sites. Come along with me to my personal favourite–the R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopalian Church in Niagara Falls. It provided a welcome intermission from Yankees and the British Empire.

Escaping from Slavery

African Americans first appeared in the Niagara Region during and after the American Revolution, between 1765 and 1783.  Some had been freed from slavery; others remained chattels of white Americans loyal to the British Crown (Loyalists) who had relocated north of the 49th parallel.

The numbers of black settlers steadily grew with the success of the Underground Railroad. This humanitarian network of safety led American slaves to freedom in British North America. Many settled within a stone’s throw of the border. 

A House of Worship Rises

In 1836, the black community of Niagara Falls began construction of a modest church on Murray Street, close to the Falls. There they could give proper thanks to the God who had led them to freedom.

Modest in size and constructed of sturdy frame set on a stone foundation, the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BMEC) rose thanks to the efforts of its small congregation.

Only a single storey, with a minimum of ornamentation, the church gained softness thanks to a distinctive quatrefoil (four-leaf clover shaped) window above the modest entrance porch. Lancet (rectangular pointed) windows framed the doorway and lend a subtle elegance to the building.  

Inside, the Pastor preached from a raised dais in front of a sacred altar. The congregation sat on simple wooden pews.

But this beloved church was not without its failures. Located on Murray Street, in close proximity to the roaring Falls, BEMC was damp and clammy inside. Spray from the water made outdoor socializing on the way to and from church next to impossible.

BMEC was eventually deemed unsuitable. With no financial means to build another house of worship in a more suitable location, the church community came to a decision.

No strangers to labour, they freed the building from its moorings, hoisted it and placed it on sturdy logs. The British Methodist Episcopalian Church was then rolled on logs down the hill. It rested on a pleasant (and dry) property donated by a landowner, and near the present-day business district of Niagara Falls.

Honouring One of the Congregation

Music was, and remains a significant part of black heritage. Some of America’s most recognizable traditional songs, “Old Black Joe” and “Swing Lo Sweet Chariot” hearken back to slavery days.

Church services have long been a vehicle for black congregations to express their love of music—and their musicality.  In 1983, 130 years after its construction, the British Methodist Evangelical Church was renamed in honour of one North America’s most respected musicians and composers, Nathaniel Dett.

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Born in 1882 in Niagara Falls, Nathaniel was a musical prodigy. He learned the piano at an early age and by his early teens he was the organist at BMEC.

Nathaniel had also begun composing and integrated into his musical compositions influences from the Negro spirituals that he had learned as a child at his grandmother’s knee. Nathaniel’s fame grew and by the 1920’s and 1930’s he was considered among the most talented of “Negro” composers.

His compositions were a highlight of “the Coloured Program” that regularly played to Standing Room Only crowds at the Chicago Music Hall.

Nor was Nathaniel Dett’s genius for the concert hall only.  He wrote and performed sacred music. His magnum opus is the 1927 Religious Folksongs of the Negro.

The legacy of Nathaniel Dett is sadly marred by a racial incident which took place in 1937,  at the height of his acclaim. In a coup for racial acceptance, Dett’s composition “The Ordering of Moses” was to be debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York. The NBC radio network would carry the broadcast.

Part way through the performance, the radio program went silent. While no official explanation from NBC was ever given, it is believed that complaints received by the network from those objecting to the playing of African-American music at a “white venue” was the cause.

After Dett’s death in 1943, his body was returned to Niagara Falls where it is buried in the cemetery of the British Methodist Episcopalian Church.

In 1983, the church was renamed the Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopalian Church. 

In 2000 it was designated a Site of national significance by Parks Canada. The honour comes as a result of its role in sheltering travelers on the Underground Railway as well as Nathaniel Dett’s legacy.

 

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